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Reflections on leaving Facebook

On 13 August 2009 I deactivated my Facebook social networking account. The world remained on its axis but Facebook’s slightly sinister prediction that my friends would miss me turned out to be correct. A torrent of emails and text messages arrived in the days following, asking where I had gone. Many asked me to justify why I left, some out of curiosity and some out of shock.

What most concerns me is not primarily a privacy issue, in the sense of concerns about the availability of one’s private information in the public domain — though this is a part of it. Instead, I will describe a psychological problem that results from an ontological consideration of identity online and a phenomenological account of encountering the other. As Ken Hillis argues, the online avatar — and I use this term loosely to include the Facebook profile — is not identical with the user. Although the user identifies with this avatar, there is a distance maintained between the two; the avatar is a middle-ground between image and agent. This is a simple point. However, things start to get more complicated when we consider what this means for encounters between users. If the user is not identical with their avatar, then they are in a relation with only that avatar and the other user’s avatar when communicating or interacting online.

In terms of voyeurism, the result is, I believe, that the main issue is not that of the user being watched, but of the user doing the watching. First, it is obviously the case that users can control what content they post on their profiles. Second, given that the avatar is not identical with the user, what is being seen by the voyeur is not only controlled content but exists at a remove from the other user. As such, the other user remains out of sight; the user cannot enter into a direct relation with the other user, only with the other user’s avatar. Given these conditions, the problem of voyeurism lies in the direction of voyeurism from the user to the other user’s avatar; again: it is the watching not the being watched that is the main cause of concern.

Facebook allows us to gather substantial amounts of information about other people — people we know to varying degrees. More than this, it makes possible the monitoring of communications between different people, communications that may or may not have anything to do with the person who has access to them. Also, and perhaps the most uncomfortable element, it is possible to see the photograph albums of users who are not ‘friends’ — in either the traditional or Facebook sense of the word — if they are commented upon by those who are. We are in danger of sleepwalking into a state of voyeurism, whereby we cease to see the difference between what ought to be seen and what can be seen. Without wanting to exaggerate the point, this somnambulist voyeurism represents a perturbing psychological phenomenon; this desire/need to watch others is a disturbing anxiety, an unhealthy and inauthentic relationship with others.